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angeld_az

How To Judge a PhD Program as *Actually* Open To Diverse Applicants

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I came to the US as an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador and graduated in Business Analytics B.S. with a Computer Science minor. I am applying to Statistics and Biostatistics PhD programs for Fall 2019 and am currently a Database Analyst using Python and SQL at a tech company.

My biggest concerns for a PhD application are my GPA (3.25 GPA) and lack of research experience.
  • No research:
    • I only found out about formal academic research until my 6th/7th year of undergrad. I did a few years of music degree and by this time, I was 100% focused on internships, technical skills, and the salary that came with a full-time industry job post-graduation
  • 3.25 GPA
    • I constantly overloaded on credits. Over my 7 years of undergrad, I took over 200 credits because I was always in a hurry to graduate and make money. I finally settled down during the end but I always cared more for making a white-collar income ASAP than getting a B as opposed to an A.

These explanations boil down to that I never considered graduate school as an option for me until it was "too late".

 
I have had a few successes. I have published an article in ASA's AMSTAT News October 2017 issue detailing my experiences entering and sticking through a STEM degree. I also had a talk proposal accepted to PyData 2018 on the Value of Null Results. I'll be presenting on data that I collected while delivering pizzas and how results weren't always statistically significant. 
 
I am confident in my empathy, communication, and curiosity. But I fear that I can't make it past the metrics filtering of schools which prioritize arguably safe, applicants.
 
How can I best use my resources (money and time) and apply for schools that actually care for accepting students like me, who the academic system was not built for? It seems many schools and programs have diversity statements but I don't know how to judge authenticity. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
 
 

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2 hours ago, angeld_az said:

How can I best use my resources (money and time) and apply for schools that actually care for accepting students like me, who the academic system was not built for? It seems many schools and programs have diversity statements but I don't know how to judge authenticity. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Contact graduate students and recently minted recipients of a doctorate. Exchange a couple of "get to know you" email and then have a conversation in person or on the phone. Similar conversations could take place between you and administrators and departmental staff. In any case, you will be well served by having these conversations face to face when possible but absolutely never in writing.

A suggestion. Before initiating contact with those who may have the information you need, please think long and hard about the way you phrased your concerns in your OP. There's an edge to your question that can inadvertently antagonize people who want to help you get to where you want to go. Ultimately, your question is about trust. If you talk to trustworthy people from a position of suspicion, there is a good chance that they'll take offense. (I am speaking from experience; I've both asked and been asked questions phrased similarly.)

A recommendation. Look through the many threads on this BB that talk about "fit." IMO, you'll find suggestions and examples on how to make the application process about convincing Powers That Be that you'll be a good fit. You'll find conversations in which the take away is that applicants may be better served by making an argument that they'd be a good fit rather than attempting to explain what they see as shortcomings.

If this post proves helpful, please pay it forward by coming back to this thread and sharing your experiences for the benefit of future applicants.

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14 hours ago, Sigaba said:

Contact graduate students and recently minted recipients of a doctorate. Exchange a couple of "get to know you" email and then have a conversation in person or on the phone. Similar conversations could take place between you and administrators and departmental staff. In any case, you will be well served by having these conversations face to face when possible but absolutely never in writing.

A suggestion. Before initiating contact with those who may have the information you need, please think long and hard about the way you phrased your concerns in your OP. There's an edge to your question that can inadvertently antagonize people who want to help you get to where you want to go. Ultimately, your question is about trust. If you talk to trustworthy people from a position of suspicion, there is a good chance that they'll take offense. (I am speaking from experience; I've both asked and been asked questions phrased similarly.)

A recommendation. Look through the many threads on this BB that talk about "fit." IMO, you'll find suggestions and examples on how to make the application process about convincing Powers That Be that you'll be a good fit. You'll find conversations in which the take away is that applicants may be better served by making an argument that they'd be a good fit rather than attempting to explain what they see as shortcomings.

If this post proves helpful, please pay it forward by coming back to this thread and sharing your experiences for the benefit of future applicants.

Thank you! I definitely agree with being diplomatic about questions of diversity. I normally bring up this topic to potential employers in a "we're in this together -- what challenges have you had?" framing. I think spending time on why I would be a good fit rather than focusing on excusing shortcomings is a better use of space on statements of purpose or conversations. Thanks so much, this is very useful advice.

Edited by angeld_az

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As a PhD holder from an underrepresented background (I'm African American, queer, and a woman), I don't think this is so much an issue of diversity.

When graduate programs talk about diversity of experiences, they are talking about about people who come from different backgrounds but not people who they may perceive as lacking the requisite experience to succeed in their PhD programs. Many programs would welcome an immigrant who came to research later in their academic career. I suspect that what most programs would have a problem with would not be those factors, but would instead be your lack of research experience and your lowish GPA.

I don't know what your struggles were in college. But by your own admission, you don't have a borderline application because the 'academic system wasn't built for you'; you have one because you were focused on other goals when you were in college. That's perfectly okay - but when you switch gears that often means you have to spend a little more time building the background to be competitive for the new field you're interested in.

Generally speaking, doctoral programs want students who have research experience because 1) it's one of the few ways to ensure that students know what they are getting themselves into and are at least reasonably sure that they enjoy research, thus perhaps being less likely to drop out of the program; and 2) students with experience are more useful in the lab as research assistants to principal investigators trying to churn out grants and papers. Without much formal research experience, you are less competitive for PhD programs, especially with a 3.25 undergraduate GPA (which is not bad or disqualifying in and of itself, but doesn't look great combined with the lack of research experience). That doesn't mean that you can never get a PhD, but it may mean that you have to spend a little more time before applying to competitive programs preparing - doing more research, perhaps presenting your results at more conferences (particularly the kind that academic faculty tend to attend), maybe getting an MA in statistics if you don't already have one, or taking some graduate classes as a non-degree student.

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4 hours ago, juilletmercredi said:

As a PhD holder from an underrepresented background (I'm African American, queer, and a woman), I don't think this is so much an issue of diversity.

When graduate programs talk about diversity of experiences, they are talking about about people who come from different backgrounds but not people who they may perceive as lacking the requisite experience to succeed in their PhD programs.

I am not sure that the comparison of backgrounds is helpful. I think that it's bad form to say "I'm X, Y, and Z, so I can tell you that your perception as an A, B, and C is wrong."

I am not sure how one can separate the OP's life history the OP's educational path. Maybe it's a regional matter,  but if one is from California, one knows that the OP is a member of one of the most reviled and exploited populations in the western hemisphere.The current president capitalized on Americans' misplaced fear of El Salvadorians arguably more than any other group of foreigners. That hate has been decades in the making. 

So when @angled_az says that the academic system wasn't built for similar students and presents an academic history that indicates an absence of solid teaching and mentoring, it seems to me that the OP's scholarly achievements came in spite of the educational system rather than because of.

My $0.02.

On 9/12/2018 at 3:05 PM, angeld_az said:

I came to the US as an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador ...

I only found out about formal academic research until my 6th/7th year of undergrad...

.. I was always in a hurry to graduate and make money.

I finally settled down during the end but I always cared more for making a white-collar income ASAP than getting a B as opposed to an A.

These explanations boil down to that I never considered graduate school as an option for me until it was "too late".

 

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I am not sure that the comparison of backgrounds is helpful. I think that it's bad form to say "I'm X, Y, and Z, so I can tell you that your perception as an A, B, and C is wrong."

That's not what I was doing and that's not what I said.

I presented my identity as a PhD graduate from an underrepresented background as a means to say that although I am not a member of the OP's specific URM group, I do understand being concerned about a program being welcoming to a student from a diverse background. My intention was to reach out a friendly face - hey, I'm not in your group, but I'm a person of color who's been to graduate school and has tread some of the same road. I mentioned it to signal that I wasn't simply being dismissive of diversity issues in general or the importance of feeling accepted and not being ostracized in a program. Nowhere in my comment did I compare my background to theirs. I also didn't say or imply that El Salvadorans aren't discriminated against or face hatred or stereotyping.

I don't disagree with his perception because I'm a black woman; I disagree with their perception because it doesn't cohere with my personal experiences and my interpretation of their comment...just like anyone else who would respond to them on this forum.

I am not trying to separate their life history and their educational path. I realize that people of color and undocumented immigrants face significant challenges; the fact that OP completed a bachelor's degree and and works at a tech company and was able to publish and present some research is remarkable. Those accomplishments, especially in the face of an education system that is not built for them and sometimes actively opposes their efforts, should be celebrated! But what I was responding to was this:

My biggest concerns for a PhD application are my GPA (3.25 GPA) and lack of research experience.

From my perspective, and in my experience, there are many doctoral programs that would take into account mitigating factors - an applicant's undocumented background, an applicant's later realization of their career goals, family difficulties, illness, early struggles, etc. - when deciding whether or not to admit them to a PhD program. Some of those may even be valued as experiences that make an applicant diverse and bring a different perspective to the department. But I still think that having no research experience would be a hard sell to even a department that greatly valued diversity, because at the end of the day a PhD is a research degree. The OP asked how they could best use their resources (time and money) and I provided some suggestions, most of which revolved around 1) getting more research experience, and 2) proving that they can succeed as a graduate student.

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Hi! Are you interested in UChicago at all? I'm a current grad student at UChicago and I'm involved in a program called GRIT (more info in signature), which was created specifically to help recruit students from URM backgrounds. We do have support for undocumented students as well. I'd love to chat more and put you in contact with some current students who may have had similar experiences to yours. 

To answer your question, I'd agree with previous posts and say that chatting with current students / searching for diversity-focused groups on program websites is a good start. Many programs are also dropping the GRE, which is a good sign that they are interested in removing barriers for URM students and students from other marginalized groups to apply to Phd programs in an equitable way.  

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